There will not be a violent collision with a middle linebacker. No one will take a vicious check into the boards and fall on hard ice.
The University of Alabama women’s golf team, though, will be facing one of the most psychologically grueling days of NCAA Championship competition on Tuesday, carrying the burden of lofty expectations into two rounds of match play in a single day on the sweltering golf course at Oklahoma State. Try to imagine an NCAA Tournament basketball team having to play its Elite Eight game in the morning and, if it wins, coming back to play its Final Four game in the afternoon.
That’s on top of four straight days of stroke play that wrapped up with a five-hour round on Monday.
It’s not that the format isn’t fair. There’s a different in “tough” and “fair,” but it is possible for a format to be both. Except for toting around that No. 1 ranking (and No. 2 seed, which came down to a tiebreaker with UCLA after both teams competed four rounds of golf in exactly 1,161 strokes each), Alabama doesn’t have to face anything that any of the other teams don’t have to manage. The combined stroke play/match play format does measure team depth, rather than favoring a team with two dominant players and average performers on the rest of the roster. It also makes for intense television drama, which isn’t always the case with regular stroke play. This year, which would have sudden-death play between Alabama and UCLA, would have been an exception.
But, like in the basketball tournament, the head-to-head element of match play allows for the possibility of an upset. Connecticut probably had the best women’s basketball team last season, but the Huskies didn’t win the championship. Alabama probably has the most talented team in the country, especially with No. 2-ranked Arkansas falling one shot short of making the quarterfinals. The question is, will that translate over the next two days?
Maybe the Crimson Tide — which opens against Kent State on Tuesday — needs a little change. Monday was not Alabama’s best day. It posted its worst single-day stroke play score and while it had enough of a cushion to keep the make-it-or-miss-it pressure away, what looked like a potential runaway at the end of Sunday’s round never quite materialized.
Alabama has dealt with this sort of pressure before. No player remains for the 2012 National Championship team, of course, but head coach Mic Potter guided that success and is a gifted golf tactician. This year’s SEC Championships went to an NCAA-style format specifically to give the league’s team a taste of what it will take on the national stage. (Ironically, perhaps, Alabama was the only SEC team to survive into the final eight, with the narrow miss by Arkansas.) After that event, Potter described the mental grind and expressed hope that the lessons learned would carry over into an even more intense scenario in Stillwater.
The opportunity is there for Alabama. The tension will be high. How well the Crimson Tide players handle that pressure — and no, there is no freshman phenom who can come in and save the day after the first nine holes — will make for high drama.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.